CHATHAM — At 94, Chicago civil rights activist and historian Timuel Black is still fighting for social justice, but he's ready for the young people of Chicago to step up and become engaged in their communities.
"You know I am getting too old for this, and so are a lot of other civil rights leaders," Black said. "It's time for us old fellas to step aside and let the young folks carry the torch the rest of the way."
In advance of Wednesday's 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech, Black joined five Chicago State University students for a civil rights forum in Washington, D.C., where they learned more about the march and the struggle for civil rights in the United States.
Brandon Louis, a 28-year-old senior at Chicago State, said the four-day conference made him further "appreciate and respect" his elders — and inspired him to step up his activism.
"We got to hear firsthand accounts from people who marched with Dr. King and what it was like being black in 1963," said Louis, an African-American studies major. "Our ancestors gave up a lot for us, and I now plan to honor their sacrifices by becoming more involved as a community activist."
Kim Dulaney, an African-American studies professor at Chicago State, accompanied the students to Washington to attend the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a Chicago-based organization that invited 50 students from several historically black colleges to educate them about social justice and the civil rights movement.
Chicago State student Kaiita Jones, 21, said attending the conference "was a great experience that made me realize how fortunate I am."
The conference was one of many important Chicago connections to the historic march.
During Saturday's celebration of the march anniversary in Washington, 9-year-old Asean Johnson, a third-grader at Marcus Garvey Elementary School, drew loud applause from the crowd, and national media attention.
“Every school deserves equal funding and resources,” Johnson told a crowd of thousands Saturday. “I encourage all of you to keep Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream alive. Help us fight for freedom, racial equality, jobs, and public education, because I have a dream that we shall overcome.”
Black said he hopes more young people will pick up the fight for social justice where their elders left off.
"My purpose for going to the conference was to share my experience working with Dr. King in Chicago and to show college students that they too can do the same," Black said.
Black added that King was in his late 20s when he began leading nonviolent marches in Chicago, and was only 34 when he delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963.
"Dr. King accomplished so much at such an early age. That's what our young people need to understand. You don't have to wait until you are in your 50s or 60s to make your mark," Black said.
The anniversary also sparked painful memories for some of Chicago's civil rights leaders.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson was among those standing with King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when he was murdered in 1968.
"I got up and called Mrs. King and said, 'Dr. King has been shot, I think in the shoulder.' And I said, 'But you should get here quickly.' I guess within five minutes, she had found out through the media that he had really been killed. It was a very traumatic moment," Jackson recalled.
Samuel Kyles, pastor of Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, also recalled that day.
King "was in the process of speaking to Jesse. I looked back, and he had been thrown back on the floor of the balcony. Blood was everywhere," Kyles said.
The late Asa Philip Randolph inspired King to organize the March on Washington, according to Lyn Hughes, founder of the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, 10604 S. Maryland Ave.
Randolph was a labor organizer who founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925. The Brotherhood became the first black labor union in the country after its 1937 inclusion by the American Federation of Labor.
And while the 1963 March on Washington is hailed as a pivotal point in civil rights history, most people don't know that Randolph founded the March on Washington Movement in 1941 with civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, Hughes said.
While thousands of people are expected in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to participate in a march to the Lincoln Memorial where President Barack Obama will speak, Chicago is celebrating the historic event as well.
The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum is hosting a free event, "The March on Washington: A Youth and Young Adult Perspective," at 6 p.m. Wednesday. And at 1:45 p.m., Gov. Pat Quinn will be at Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bronzeville to ring a bell to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.